The Montreal Canadiens faced perhaps the toughest test of the season Friday night in Washington.
The Capitals are at the top of the entire National Hockey League, playing their best hockey of the year without a loss in over a dozen games. The Caps have lost only twice in regulation this year before hosting the Canadiens. The Habs are also playing well right now, with a season-best five games over 500 and on pace for 105 points on the year.
It’s a trend that continued in D.C., as Montreal went on to play extremely well for a 5-2 win.
It’s becoming quite apparent that Nick Suzuki is going to be a strong pro.
He’s not just fitting in during his first season at the NHL level, he’s the best Habs player on the ice many of his shifts. It’s also becoming quite apparent that Suzuki needs to be a centre to play his best hockey — his skillset is designed for it. He is extremely intelligent and reads the play skillfully, seemingly ahead of the puck and anticipating its path many times.
He’s a strong puck battler as well, but it’s not his greatest strength. So there’s another reason to think he should be in the middle of the ice — not on the wing.
It makes little sense to find a player with this type of intelligence and then take away all of the responsibilities of centre that he can handle successfully. It was difficult to imagine that of the big three — along with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling — Suzuki would be the one who is shining the most this season, but he is miles ahead of the other two. Kotkaniemi has been nursing a groin injury, while Poehling suffered a concussion in pre-season.
This partly explains it, but the better explanation is he is simply figuring this out faster so far. Don’t worry, though, as the others are still 19 and 20 years of age, and each player figures things out at a different pace.
For example, Jonathan Drouin is 24 and he is playing the best hockey of his career, figuring it all out better than he has previously. It can take time, and the true mark of a player is what the ceiling finally is overall, not who gets comfortable first. So while Suzuki is looking simply outstanding so far, there is no reason to be discouraged that Kotkaniemi and Poehling aren’t there yet.
A lot of discussion this year has been about the demise of Shea Weber, but it doesn’t appear statistically if Weber is that interested in this topic. Weber fired an absolute howitzer into the top corner for the Habs’ second goal of the night, a shot so fierce that Ilya Samsonov ducked. He actually first saw it when it whizzed past his head; he wanted no part of that 100-mph slapshot.
When was the last time you saw an NHL goalie duck to avoid a shot? It’s rather humorous.
Weber now has six goals and nine assists on the season. His 15 points on the year puts him behind only Tomas Tatar for the team lead. Weber has seen less ice time recently, while Jeff Petry takes more. It’s not about quantity, though, it’s about quality —and the quality of Weber’s work is outstanding right now.
Perhaps Weber’s knee is feeling better because he’s certainly playing better. While PK Subban comparisons are a dime a dozen, it’s worth mentioning some numbers at the moment. Weber is plus-4 while PK is minus-5. Subban has only two goals and five points on the year. Wouldn’t it be something, after all these assumptions over the years that Weber would be on his couch with a beer while Subban was winning Norris trophies or Cups, for it not to turn out that way at all?
Stay tuned, because this story has had many twists and turns over the years. Subban won the first chapter heading to the Stanley Cup final, for sure, but a book has many chapters, so no one should feel certain who will finally be called the trade winner.
One of the reasons the Habs are off to a start that’s six games over .500 is the line led by Philip Danault. Whether it’s Jonathan Drouin on the wing or Tomas Tatar with Brendan Gallagher, this Danault line is making a massive difference to the results.
Hockey is usually about the best players and what they’re able to accomplish, so what the Danault line does is make sure the other team’s best players have off-nights against Montreal. When the Habs faced the Bruins earlier this month, Brad Marchand had just played a five-point game the night before. The Bergeron line was absolutely dominating the entire league at the time, but couldn’t dominate Philip Danault and company. David Pastrnak had the only goal for the line, and it was on the power play.
Fast forward now to the Capitals at home with their head coach not caring if the barely-respected Phillip Danault is checking their greats, Backstrom and Ovechkin. The line does it again as they take care of one of the NHL’s best trios. This top line gets no credit around the NHL as they are not flashy like MacKinnon; they don’t get points like Bergeron, but check the Corsi numbers. The Danault line was top five last season, and they are appearing ready to repeat that feat this season.
Tomas Tatar is the team leader in points now as he had a four-point night to be comfortably in front. It’s been a weird season for Tatar, who has taken so many minor penalties that he got into Claude Julien’s doghouse, leading to a benching and being taken off the top line. Yet here we are, with Tatar playing at a point-per-game pace a quarter way through the season.
When you comfortably beat the best team in the league in their own arena when they’re well rested, there are no goats. Carey Price did not have a difficult night. It was a night so easy that Price might be able to start again Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils. The Canadiens are now 11-5-3 on the season.
That’s an outstanding record.
Cole Caufield was back at it for Wisconsin, scoring highlight reel goals on Friday. The Canadiens’ first-round draft choice last season is tearing it up in college hockey with nine goals in 11 games. His goal for the Badgers on Friday night was NHL material. Caufield had to handle a fast-moving puck arriving to him, but he did it so incredibly well that he sent it to the top part of the net before the back part of the net, and he did it from inside five feet.
The level of talent required to do this cannot be minimized — it was wizardry, this shot.
You won’t find many shooters better than Caufield at any level in hockey. If he can handle 5-on-5 in any acceptable way, he is ready for the show. Every coach in the world would be salivating to see Caufield on the power play. It’s easy to imagine a pretty exciting future with Suzuki feeding Caufield for some gorgeous goals.
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